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Diego von Vacano, The Art of Power: Machiavelli, Nietzsche, and the Making of Aesthetic Political Theory

Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2007. Pages: xi + 215 pp. ISBN-13: 978-0-7391-1088-1. $60.00 (cloth); $29.95 (paper)

Reviewed by Rebecca Bamford

In his recent book on the art of power, Diego von Vacano aims to contest traditional political theory understood as the attempt to "realize, on earth, an ideal vision of justice," an attempt that he categorizes as "deontological-normative" (8). His proposed alternative model to traditional political theory so conceived is "aesthetic political theory" (e.g. 6). To ground his challenge, von Vacano develops a comparative account of the "similar aims and perspectives" of Machiavelli and Nietzsche, and pursues the political implications of one particularly important shared feature of their work that he identifies: "aesthetic, sensory cognition" understood as fundamental to political life (1). The book is divided into three main parts, each comprising two chapters, and also includes a concluding chapter on the theme of "spectacular politics", in which von Vacano aims to apply the alternative model of political theory, derived from his historical analysis of Machiavelli and Nietzsche, to selected contemporary political experiences, including 9/11, and the US-Iraq war that began in 2003 (186).

In part one, von Vacano directs our attention to Machiavelli as an "artist of words" (11). He contends that scholars of Machiavelli have tended to neglect the political significance of the literary writings, in favor of attending to the question of the relationship between the "apparently despotic" Prince and the "putatively republican" Discourses, which has left us with the impression of Machiavelli as a cynic, or at best a pragmatist (11-12). Von Vacano suggests that by examining the literary writings, we gain a way to integrate Machiavelli's writings into a whole that is unified through the concepts of the aesthetic, the tragic, and the heroic (12). Machiavelli's The Ass is read in light of Lucius Apuleius's Metamorphoses/The Golden Ass, an historical contextualization that is important to von Vacano's argument for two reasons: (i) it enables him to identify the political content of Machiavelli's poem, and (ii) it allows him to show why the poetic is key to the functioning of Machiavelli's wider political project. Von Vacano contends that Machiavelli's poem, like the rest of his literary works, counts as an example of aesthetic political reasoning "that has significant insights into both the nature of political life and the human condition" (37). Von Vacano uses his reading of how Machiavelli's politics are expressed in artistic terms in The Ass to develop an account of the aesthetic politics of The Prince, arguing that the aesthetic dimension of Machiavelli's work facilitates his well-known distinction between the political and the ethical.

In part two, a further pair of chapters focus upon the ways in which Nietzsche deepens and enriches Machiavelli's aesthetic political insights. Von Vacano identifies references made by Nietzsche to Machiavelli in e.g. HH V.224, BGE 28, TI "Ancients" 2, WP 211, 304, 776, and a passage from Nachlass 1888, counting references to Machiavelli in "eight passages of his [Nietzsche's] published work and in nineteen of his published notes" (76, fn. 21 105), and using these to structure his discussion of the ways in which Nietzsche broadens and enriches Machiavelli's project. Von Vacano suggests that Machiavelli is Nietzsche's key historical source for the separation of the moral and the political, while also arguing that Nietzsche goes beyond Machiavelli's separation of the ethical and the political, by positing a "new brand" of ethics that "stands higher than political change" (75). In the course of developing this account, von Vacano discusses important sets of Nietzsche's remarks on subjectivity, will, self, the will to power, and reason, and invites us to juxtapose these with Machiavelli's views. But in doing so he might perhaps have engaged more critically with Nietzsche's remarks in significant depth, rather than leaving us with an overview of relevant remarks and positions that required far more detailed explanation. For example, the comparative discussion of subjectivity in Machiavelli and Nietzsche (92-95), includes the claim that for Nietzsche there is no inherent structure or pattern to the way that human thought works (95). At the least, a more philosophically robust account of precisely how sensory aesthetic cognition, grounded in Nietzsche's remarks on subjectivity and cognition, gets aesthetic political theory off the ground — not merely an assertion that it does, and that it can therefore ground the proposed challenge to traditional political theory — was required here.

In chapter 4, Von Vacano reads Machiavelli's The Ass alongside Nietzsche's Z IV, and Lucius Apuleius's Metamorphoses/The Golden Ass. This reading ultimately leads him to claim that Z is a "potentially 'democratic' book" in that "everyone can undergo an arduous transformation" (129). But he admits this is not certain, even though it seems that Nietzsche wants us to believe that this is possible so that we might strive after this goal (137f). This claim for the potential democratism of Z is particularly interesting in light of von Vacano's brief discussion of the importance of the agon in both Machiavelli and Nietzsche (82-85), in which agonism is taken to describe "the view of human life that Machiavelli and Nietzsche share" (83). Agonism in Nietzsche is claimed to ground communal feeling, rather than reasoned deliberation, a feature of Nietzsche's account that von Vacano suggests is particularly important because of its realism (85). There was room here for von Vacano to develop the relationship between agonism and democracy in Z in more detail, especially in light of work by Herman Siemens that connects agonism in Nietzsche with a constructive politics, and with the ethical and cognitive resources that Nietzsche finds in the aesthetic.[1]

In part three of the book, von Vacano uses his comparative analysis of Machiavelli and Nietzsche to develop a detailed account of what he calls "aesthetic political theory," which, in contrast to traditional political theory, is argued to emphasize the role of sensory perception and experience in politics (140). One useful explanation of the difference between traditional political science and aesthetic political theory is given by analogizing one feature of aesthetic political theory with a feature of rational choice political science: where this form of political science borrows many of its key terms from economics and decision theory, aesthetic political theory borrows from philosophical aesthetics (141). The concluding chapter explores some of the current implications of von Vacano's proposed alternative to traditional political theory, "aesthetic political theory", which is defined against the background of the aesthetic as an account of how politics "works" rather than of how it "ought" to work (6, 8-9, 139-184). Von Vacano considers how aesthetic political theory might be fruitfully applied to the analysis of concerns that affect all of our lives, such as terror, war, identity, and responsibility. In particular, von Vacano argues that aesthetic political theory is well-equipped to help us to identify and to analyze the visual dimension of contemporary politics, giving the examples of the fascist aestheticization of politics in Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will (186-187), in the performance of terror in and through media images such as those of 9/11, and in the political significance of media images in the April 2004 Abu Ghraib torture scandal (190-194).

A clear, detailed, and coherent definitional account of the aesthetic is obviously required in order to properly ground von Vacano's key claims that Machiavelli and Nietzsche share the view that aesthetic, sensory cognition is fundamental to political life, and that these historical sources can and do successfully ground contemporary aesthetic political theory. In pursuit of the definition in question, Von Vacano draws upon Baumgarten's inauguration of the term ‘aesthetic’, which is based on the Greek term referring to sensory perceptual experience, aisthesis — von Vacano gives us aisthesthai (143) — and which is taken to refers to what Baumgarten calls "sensitive knowing", or, as von Vacano puts it, "perception through the senses", including touch, hearing, smell, and taste, as well as vision (2, 143, 152-154). According to von Vacano, Machiavelli and Nietzsche do not place beauty at the center of their concept of the aesthetic, though they retain the sense of the aesthetic as pertaining to the artistic: this carries with it the consequence that von Vacano must treat 'aesthetic' as having a double referent, in order for the notion of aesthetic political theory to make sense: (i) "what is artistic", and (ii) "the human capacity for cognition through the senses" (2).

This move raises a particularly complex set of issues concerning aesthetic ontology, as it is not clear what becomes of the relationship between art objects and the category of the aesthetic on this model, given the degree of argumentative weight placed upon sensory cognition conceived of as distinctively aesthetic, in Baumgarten's sense of that term. Here, more attention should have been given to other recent work that seeks to combine the political, the experiential, and the aesthetic, in order to frame these issues for readers, even though it obviously lies beyond the scope of the book to tackle them in detail.[2] As von Vacano notes, this move also poses a potential problem of anachronism in the case of Machiavelli, for whom Baumgarten's 1735 definition of the aesthetic was not available (9). While a clearer and more nuanced discussion of precisely how the concept of the aesthetic in Machiavelli and in Nietzsche is to be understood would have helped here, the particular problem of anachronism need not necessarily threaten von Vacano's position. This is because the distinction between perceptions of aesthetic and non-aesthetic objects required for the anachronism problem to stand is neither entailed by the claim that the aesthetic encompasses the philosophy of art (understood to focus on questions of beauty, taste, and art), nor identical to it (142-143). Put another way, the fact that Machiavelli did not have access to Baumgarten's definition of the aesthetic does not mean that there is no evidence in Machiavelli's texts to support von Vacano's reading of Machiavelli as distinctively modern in this respect.

Von Vacano's consistent emphasis upon the importance of style strengthens his argument. Perhaps our most direct evidence of Nietzsche's view of the significance of Machiavelli's work, especially with respect to the theme of style, is in BGE 28, where Nietzsche comments on the difficulty of translating the tempo of style from one language to another:

… how could the German language, even in the prose of a Lessing, imitate the tempo of a Machiavelli, who lets us breathe the fine, dry air of Florence in his Prince and cannot keep from presenting the most serious business in a wild allegrissimo, perhaps not without an artist's malicious feeling for the contradiction he is attempting: the thoughts long, heavy, harsh, dangerous, set to a galloping tempo of the finest, most mischievous mood (BGE 28).

Von Vacano's general comparative warrant is taken from precisely the view expressed by Nietzsche in this passage, which emphasizes the important philosophical work that may be done in and through the workings of style. Bringing Leo Strauss to bear on this point, von Vacano suggests that what Strauss appreciates in Machiavelli and Nietzsche, and what we ought to appreciate, is that their recognition of the importance of "deception, (mis)representation, and the use of rhetoric and emotions are central to both cultural and political transformations" (180). Von Vacano contends that Nietzsche and Machiavelli share an important methodological insight concerning the capacity of style to engage, and thereby to politically charge, readers. There are strong hints that this is done in and through the bodily, emotional relationship to written performance experienced by both writers and readers, especially within the political context (e.g. 155). The importance accorded to the body and to the senses is something that would have benefited from much more sustained analysis, especially in light of von Vacano's appeal to Baumgarten. One key example of such performance to which von Vacano directs our attention, in addition to that of The Ass, is Machiavelli's last Capitolo, "Chance," which on his reading, exhorts the reader to action (36). Another example is, of course, Nietzsche's Z IV.

Diego von Vacano has written an ambitious book. He encourages us to examine Nietzsche's indebtedness to Machiavelli within the history of ideas, points to the continuing contemporary political and philosophical significance of Nietzsche's active participation in the classical tradition, and calls for further scholarly attention to the relationship between the aesthetic and the political. Von Vacano's aesthetic challenge to political theory conceived in purely rational terms is plausible from a Nietzschean perspective, and deserves further attention as well as further elaboration and defense. There are avoidable mistakes in editing and indexing, such as the elision of cited works by, for example, F. A. Ankersmit and Wendy Brown (105) from the bibliography. There is also neglect of some of the more recent scholarly work on Nietzsche (such as that of Siemens on agonal communities of taste in Nietzsche) that might have lent further overall coherence to von Vacano's argument. And the unwieldy scope of the argument itself means that the reader's access to the intricacies of von Vacano's discussion is sometimes curtailed, and that full justice is not always done to von Vacano's insights. Despite these flaws, the interesting and pertinent questions raised by von Vacano mean that this book makes an interesting contribution to political theory that will also be of relevance to philosophers interested in the relationship between Nietzsche and Machiavelli. Indeed, for those readers of Nietzsche who are unfamiliar with Machiavelli's work, this book is undoubtedly useful and timely.

Hunter College of the City University of New York


  1. H. W. Siemens, "Agonal Communities Of Taste: Law And Community In Nietzsche's Philosophy Of Transvaluation," Journal of Nietzsche Studies 24 (2002), 83-112.
  2. Relevant texts here include J. M. Bernstein, The Fate of Art: Aesthetic Alienation from Kant to Derrida and Adorno, (University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1992), William Connolly, Neuropolitics: Thinking, Culture, Speed, (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2002). A more recent publication, and one that von Vacano could not have incorporated, is Barbara Maria Stafford, Echo Objects: The Cognitive Work of Images, (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 2007). F. R. Ankersmit, Aesthetic Politics: Political Philosophy Beyond Fact and Value, (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1997), is missing from the bibliography, although reference to Ankersmit is made (e.g. fn. 27, 105).